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Republicans are stuck on shutdowns
Lessons from the Underpants Gnomes
It’s that time again. It’s the end of the fiscal year and Republicans, after a hiatus from being fiscal hawks during the Trump Administration, are once again engaging in budgetary brinksmanship.
This year, the shutdown is estimated to take place if no deal is reached by September 30. Twelve appropriations bills have to be passed to fund the government for the new fiscal year. At last count, House Republicans have only passed one of the necessary bills.
As an alternative, Congress could also pass a continuing resolution to kick the can down the road. This would keep spending at current levels and give Congress a few more weeks or months to agree to a new budget. The problem is that more than a dozen Republicans oppose a continuing resolution.
To be fair, not all Republicans are part of the problem here. The real problem is the House Freedom Caucus and other assorted extremist Republicans. The Freedom Caucus is pushing Speaker McCarthy to load appropriations bills with Republican wish lists, which makes the bills promptly go down to defeat.
The math is that Republicans have a nine-vote majority in the House and a minority in the Senate. When McCarthy tees up a partisan bill, it loses both Democrats as well as some moderate Republicans.
As Axios reported this week, some Freedom Caucus members voted against a defense appropriations bill even though it contained restrictions on abortion, transgender medical procedures, and affirmative action in the military. The members cited concerns about their ultimate position in budget negotiations with the Biden Administration as well as the fact that the bill was rushed to a vote.
“They're throwing one bill out that they've plussed up, and we don't even know what the top-line numbers for the entire package" are, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said. "They should be holding stuff back until we all know what the top line is."
Some Republicans are more concerned about keeping the government open, however. In Politico, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). “I lived through a government shutdown as an FBI agent. If I can testify that it impacts national security in a very direct way. Your cases will get shut down, because there’s a gap in coverage on an investigation. That’s my perspective of shutdowns, why I hate them.”
Active-duty military personnel would suffer along with law enforcement. Stars and Stripes notes that troops like my son in the Air Force would stay on the job during a government shutdown but would not be paid until the the two parties brokered a deal to fund the budget.
Other Republicans point out that shutting the government down would be self-defeating.
“I think the governing majority, which is presiding at the time the government shuts down, probably is going to bear a lot of the blame,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) told Politico. “And we’re the ones with the gavel… it’s our job to run the government.”
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) was more succinct.
“We always get the blame,” Simpson said. “Name one time that we’ve shut the government down and we haven’t got the blame.”
And that’s true. The one possible exception that I can think of was the 2018 shutdown, but Republicans still edged out Democrats in taking the blame then as well.
Shutdowns have long been popular with the Republican base, but they are a particularly dumb strategy. In Congress, votes are what matter and, if a party doesn’t have the votes to pass its priorities before a shutdown, shutting the government down won’t change that.
The irrationality of the shutdown strategy can be illustrated by South Park’s Underpants Gnomes. The gnomes have a three-step plan for wealth that starts with stealing underpants and ends in “profit.” The flaw in the plan is that they haven’t figured out the critical intermediate step.
It’s the same with the shutdown proponents. The budget cutters have some bargaining power leading up to a shutdown because avoiding an interruption is in everyone’s interest. But their position is limited because the other side realizes that once the shutdown starts, the positions reverse.
Shutting the government down doesn’t win over opposition votes. Rather, the shutdown gnomes need votes from the other party to reopen the government. With the shutdown gnomes getting hammered by public opinion as Social Security checks run late and soldiers don’t get paid, the other side isn’t too anxious to let the shutdown gnomes off the hook and tries to extract their own concessions.
Shutting the government down is also a self-defeating strategy for budget hawks because shutting the government down is more expensive than keeping it open. In addition to the fact that the government is usually fully funded retroactively when it reopens, there are economic costs associated with delays in doing business during the shutdown.
I’m also concerned about out-of-control government spending, but a government shutdown is not the way to negotiate cuts. Republicans should force what cuts they can while passing the necessary appropriations bills, but the bills or a continuing resolution should be passed.
Rep. Womack was correct in that the whole episode is an exhibition of Republican dysfunction. Republicans have the majority in the House, which controls the purse strings of government, but divisions between their own members are grinding the government to a halt. This is not good governance.
The situation also shows Speaker McCarthy’s weakness. As I wrote last week when the House opened an impeachment inquiry, the Speaker is beholden to the totally unreasonable “kamikaze caucus.” Those same Republicans have McCarthy trapped in the budget impasse.
The House won’t pass the right-wing bills, which is bringing the country toward a financial crisis, but McCarthy can’t tack left to pick up Democrat votes without losing the speakership. Guess which is more important to him.
I don’t know whether the two sides will hammer out a deal before the deadline, but I do know that the Republicans will ultimately give in. They’ll have to. Basic math dictates the ultimate outcome of the budget battle.
The only alternative is for the Freedom Caucus to force a default and crash the entire economy. Hopefully, they aren’t that delusional. However bad government overspending is, a federal default would be worse.
The shutdown debate is nothing more than an exercise in political theater which gives publicity-seeking congressmen a chance to preen for the cameras. The spending problem is not going to be resolved by debating discretionary spending when the real problem is entitlements, and no one is even pretending that entitlement reform is on the table.
I can at least be optimistic that this time it seems that the shutdown gnomes are a minority. In past shutdowns, there was a spirit of defiance among Republicans that I don’t see this time. I haven’t even seen a single Republican screaming “Shut it down” online. This time, the troublemakers seem to be a mere handful rather than the majority of the party as we saw in Ted Cruz’s ill-conceived “Defund Obamacare” shutdown in 2014.
Maybe Republicans are learning not to listen to the most shrill and extreme voices of their caucus. One can hope.
A GUN PODCAST: I’m going to recommend a podcast. A recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” featured a lesson on “assault rifles” from Greg Wallace, a law professor and competitive shooter. I won’t agree with all of Gladwell’s opinions, but the episode is informative and fair and addresses many of the myths about “assault rifles” and gun control. It’s worth your time no matter which side of the debate you’re on. Listen here:
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